Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn was written for a revival of Absent Friends at the Salisbury Playhouse in 2007.

About Absent Friends

What inspired you to write Absent Friends?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Up until then, I had experimented with predominantly plot driven vehicles, Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, etc. and I felt it was time for me to explore character driven writing. i.e events that largely developed because of, as a result of, the characters. That’s not to say that nothing happens in Absent Friends but it happens as a result of the inter-reaction and chemistry between the protagonists far more than in my earlier writing where events intervened.

What do you think explains its enduring appeal? Did you expect it to still be being performed over thirty years later?
I had no idea if it would be performed in 30 years. On the one hand, it would be nice to have thought so; on the other hand since it is still performed it means that its themes are still relevant. And that’s sad because it means that after all that’s happened in the intervening years men and women are still battling to understand each other and presumably treating each other, on occasions, equally badly. The battle lines may have been redrawn but the fight goes on!

Absent Friends is also sometimes described as being ‘a play about nothing’ or ‘a play about people sitting chatting’. Why did you decide to write a play of this kind and were you afraid it might not have worked?
Yes. I was extremely nervous about several things: first it was a play whose theme is death or rather our reaction to it. It was also, as one critic rather shrewdly pointed out at the time, a play about the death of love. Fairly dark themes for a dramatist who was currently regarded as a purveyor of so-called light comedy. But a man’s gotta write what a man’s gotta write.

Why did you decide to set the play in real time and was this difficult to get right?
I was (and still am) fascinated by the use of Time as a dramatic tool for storytelling. How if action is extended over a long period of time, this has the effect of placing the onlooker back a few paces viewing the action, as it were, in long-shot. Alternatively, setting stories over a short period, has the reverse effect, the cinematic equivalent of a close up. Absent Friends is an extreme example of the latter. It is in “now” time where the drama is in the minute detail.

How fond are you of the play? How do you rate it compared with your other works?
I’m very fond of it. I think it has its place (as you put it - pivotal); for me, it’s a significant stepping stone to other things – the shape of things to come, if you like.

How do you feel the play was received by audiences when it was first performed? Was it everything you had hoped it would be?
In Scarborough where we first produced it, yes. A big hit with critics and public. In London, less so, but then it wasn’t performed by the Scarborough company and I wasn’t directing! Sadly, I feel the new concept got lost in the West End production. They tried to play it in the same style as The Norman Conquests. Disastrous!

Have you seen many different productions of Absent Friends around the country and even the world? Have there been any particularly interesting versions which you recall? Or any favourites?

Do you have any unusual stories or anecdotes associated with the play that you'd like to share?
We (the Scarborough company ) went on tour with it to Houston, Texas to the Alley Theatre. At one matinee, I recall, during the carefully blocked and rehearsed tea party scene, no one ate a single sandwich, but instead kept passing the laden plates around as it they were red hot. I discovered afterwards that the food, whilst waiting on the offstage prop table, had become invaded by roaches who were busily having an early tea of their own.

And finally, have you ever thought about what happens to your characters after the play ends?

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